Tuesday, December 27, 2011


One of the nice things about a holiday, for me at least, is to lie in bed in the morning, drink a cup of coffee and read a newspaper or a book.  As the Grauniad told us this morning, iProducts and Kindles are eroding the actual print copies of newspapers and oh irony of ironies I read that this morning from the warmth and comfort of my bed, a cup of coffee on the go, on an iProduct.

Further perusing the Grauniad (so-called because of their penchant for spelling errors) led me to cyclingnews because the Grauniad has a particularly good cycling section for a British paper (which predates the Manx Missile and then some) which led me to the "steepest street in the world" link.

35% eh?  Seems steep.

Call it web-based research (remember, wikipedia is not a reference), cyberslacking or mere random link-clicking, it got me to where I wanted to go.    You see, I was in Spain earlier this year and since I lost the blogging urge for a while mid-year I never got the opportunity to write about some of those experiences.  One of those experiences was ticking one thing off my cycling bucket-list.  Something I'd never done which always made me feel a little less of a cyclist.

Never mind that in over a quarter-century on the roads I've road-raced, time-trialed, psycho-crossed, triathloned (is that a verb?), bike-couriered, commuted, toured, ridden in stupid baking sun humidity (Virginia) and oh-my-God freezing cold (Canada) and everything in-between, crashed and got stitches and screws, worked in a bike-shop and even been in a beer-club with a cycling problem (Crest CC, I'm talking to you) but I've never climbed a mountain col.  

Besides, for a guy of my size (north of 160lb/72 kg, not by much but still north) I like to think I'm not a bad climber.  It's one thing to punch it up and over the hills of the Shubie Doobie Tri or drag a loaded touring bike over North Mountain, but how would I measure up on a proper hill?  It was time to find out.

World Du's had been on the Sunday and la belle and I were now planning what to do for the next week.  We had no plans other than to relax, see a bit of the locale and ride our bikes some.  For me, I wanted to check out a climb from the Vuelta d'Espana; Gijon often hosts a stage of the Vuelta and it's almost always a mountain stage, so that shouldn't be a problem.

We were very lucky in that one of the World Du's LOC, Raul Martin, took us under his wing for most of the week.  It started in the officials'/LOC meeting when it turned out we were the only three there working and racing the event, and then when he bartered me two Federacion d'Espanola de Triatlon running jerseys for my Team Canada fleece cycling jacket.    Before we knew it he was showing us around the Asturias.  We were los Canadiens for the week and we loved it.

After a day to decompress he showed us around Aviles and Oviedo, where we also met Jorge Garcia, World Du's Race Organizer (who we'd met the previous year in Edinburgh) and recently minted ITU level 3 official.

We then headed west out of Gijon to Ballotta, via one of the best beaches in the area, according to Raul, near La Magdalena.  I don't have any reason to dispute this.

In Ballotta we stayed at the Casa Fernandez, run by the family of Beatriz Tenreiro, one of the best female triathletes in the area and a top-ten finisher at Spanish Nationals this year.  Together with Beatriz's husband and coach, Miguel Angel, they all took us on a lovely ride along the coast road to Luarca.  It was a great road-ride, twisty and climb-y.  These were their training roads and they descended like bats out of hell!  I did't even try to keep up!

I felt at home and at ease with these cyclists, who I'd never met before.  It's funny how some people scare you on a bike and some people don't.  What made it more remarkable was we couldn't really talk with one another, so we did our talking with the bike and we got on just fine.  They didn't scare us and we didn't scare them.  I felt like a real cyclist again,  They complemented us on our road-handling skills, perhaps they were worried about being on the roads with triathletes, fortunately we were cyclists first!  Talk about keeping Canada's end up!

Nice little story; I asked what was the Spanish for "car behind" seeing as we were 5-up on a twisty road. Oh, "don't worry" was the answer, "the cars will look after us".  By goodness they were right.  A 60km ride on a twisty coast road, sometimes three abreast or bombing down hills at > 60 kph (Miguel and Raul at least, I descended with the ladies) and not once did we get honked up.  I want to move there.

Oh, they also asked me if I was la belle's coach! As if!  

The next day we had a rendezvous with the climb.  Raul told me we had two choices; Lagos de  Covadonga or the Alto d'Angliru.  Now, I've heard of the Angliru; 10% average but supposedly 25% in places and so hard the team-cars can't get up there.  Pros put on compacts and (if appropriately sponsored) SRAM WiFli.  Velonews named Team Sky's choice of gears on the Alto d'Angliru in this year's Vuelta as their "Technical Blunder of 2011".  I did not know of this Covadonga climb of which he spoke, but how could it be worse than the Angliru?

We met up with Raul in his home town just outside of Ovieda and drove the 50kms or so to the foothills of the Picos d'Europa.  

To perk ourselves up for the climb we stopped for coffee at Cangas d'Onis, which my pet cow really enjoyed (more about her later).

We parked up just outside Soto de Cangas, unloaded, chucked our legs over the top-tube and headed off.  A very low-key start. Unlike the pros, we hadn't raced 100kms to get here, so what could possibly go wrong?

It wasn't good road, very harsh chip-seal.  It was a bit of a false flat; combined with the road-surface, I was already in the 23, doing about 20 kph and the climb hadn't started yet.  I had time to reflect on the statement "what could possibly go wrong".

We hit a couple of roundabouts and then we came to the basilica of Covadonga: little did we know it but this was in some ways the birthplace of modern Spain, where Pelayo had turned back the Moorish invasion.  

The climb started and within 500m of the cathedral, I was in the 27 already.  Ah.  Never mind.  I didn't have anything left below this and this wasn't the place to start berating myself for not fitting a compact or a big cassette and an XT derailleur before we left.  So I gritted my teeth and got to grips with what I had; 39 x 27.  We were to be together for most of the climb.

La belle says I rocketed up the first section.  I didn't think I was pounding it, but riding within myself.  She was riding comfortably with Raul: after all, I was the col virgin.  Raul had been up Covadonga  several times, including at the end of a longish brevet (is there any such thing as a short brevet?) and la belle had done the Ventoux.  I was the only one who didn't know what was coming!

I climbed well for about 5 kms, or about 350 vertical metres, when I passed the tree-line.   The longest climbs I'd done had been in the 5 km range, in the Grampians or the longer climbs in the Annapolis Valley, and none of them had ever gone above the tree-line.  The climb at Worlds three days earlier, which had many Nova Scotian's worried, was just under 200 vertical metres in just under 5 kms.  We weren't even half-way up and I was already into uncharted territory.  Here be dragons!

Then disaster. The average gradient of the climb is given as 7.5% with some 10% pitches and one 15% pitch, about 800m long at about 6 kms.  They call this pitch la huesera; the bone woman.  She had me.

I'd noticed the day before than even strong riders such as Beatriz and Miguel were rocking triples,  Raul was.  La belle had argued with me long and hard about my choice of a compact double for her bike, but I didn't hear her complaining about the 36 inner ring (34" gear with  28T).  On the other hand, I was rocking out on 39 x 27 (38"); yup I'd brought a gun to a knife fight.

My heart was coming out of my chest and my legs were blocked.  I was fixated on the remainng section of la huesera, I could see it turn right by 90 degrees, maintaining an even 15% gradient as far as I could see.  Fuck.  I stopped for the first time on a climb since I can remember.  They say walking a bicycle up hill is the cyclists walk of shame, and that's how I felt.  La huesera had found me wanting.  Bitch.   I rolled to a halt next to a cow, who just looked at me.

Le belle and Raul caught me.  They stopped and we all took the time for a photo, a drink and a little gee-up session for me.   Everyone stops the first time, Raul told me.  He then let me know what was to come; the gradient evened out but there were short ramps at 10 to 15%.  Nothing like this.  Bueno.

We set off again.  There was a look-out, or mirador in Spanish, on the corner and I really wanted to stop again but la belle overtook me and, I think, called me some names.   Chalice.  That got me going again.

I knuckled down and rode the ramps.  As Raul said, the gradient was pretty even with lumps and bumps. For los canadiens reading this, at the shallowest it was like the steepest part of the BLT trail as it climbs to Bayers Lake, but the ramps were like any of the harder climbs around here.

At the top there is the Lagos Enol (an alternative name for the climb). The Vuelta's finish is flatter and to the left.  

Naturally, we went to the right for another few hundred metres of climbing, but unlike the Vuelta's finish, this road dead-ended at a bar.

Muy Bueno.  

About 1100 vertical metres climbed in 12 kms (there was a small descent before the finish, so if we were 1036 above sea level, we had a tad more climbing on the clock).  My Garmin has more, but it's not an accurate altimeter.  Put it this way, it's clocked me at 10 metres below sea-level when I've been on the ocean!  To put Covadonga in perspective, Cape Smokey on the Cabot Trail climbs 200 vertical metres in just under 2 kms.

How about those Bontrager Node 2 computers?

A word about cows.  It had started as a little joke.  Readers of this blog know I have a little pet cow called Moo (imaginative huh?) who goes on my travels with me.  It seemed right and proper she climb Covadonga on my jersey pocket.  

However, Covadonga was covered with Moos of the original variety: big, one-ton, slab-sided, mobile hunks of beef-on-the-hoof.  They just littered the road and didn't give a shit.  Or maybe they did, plenty of manure on the road too: wouldn't like to hit that at speed, in the wet on the way down!  On the way up it wasn't so bad; the closing speed was 10 kph, or less, and you had plenty of time to work out which way to overtake a stationary cow, especially if a car was coming the other way.  On the way down, it's a different matter.  

I read earlier this year that if Thomas Voeckler regretted anything about this years Tour de France it was chasing too much on Alpe d'Huez and not checking out the descents.  I feel that.  It took us 75 minutes or so to climb to the top, and 30 to get back down: and I was descending like a girl.  I mean that too, having ridden with some of the Youth triathletes.  I didn't even break 50 kph.  I wasn't the only one, la belle literally burnt trough a set of cork pads!  Partly it was just not knowing the corners, partly it was the sheer exposed nature of it: you could see that of you flipped over the barrier (which wasn't really a barrier, just a concrete post like the one which killed Fabio Casartelli) then it was a long way down.  Partly it was not wanting to broad-side a cow at full tilt (one suspects the cow wouldn't notice) and part of it was having to full-on concentrate for 30 minutes.  Even at speed on a straight road in a pace-line you can switch off a little bit, it seemed like that would be suicidal here.  Still, going slowly we got some nice views.

Now here's the thing: it was really hard going up and really easy going down.  Yet we stopped repeatedly on the way down to take pictures, not on the way up, when repeated stops wold have been welcomed.  Yup, we're cyclists!

At the bottom we hit the bar with a huge stack of sandwiches, taller than Moo, made from the local Jamon Serrano, even more appropriate today as Jamon Serrano literally means "mountain ham" 

And that was the climb of Cowadonga. Moo!



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